A record 205 million people tuned in to watch Invictus beat Fnatic in the League of Legends World Championship Grand Final last year. That is twice as many viewers as the Super Bowl managed to attract and it confirmed that competitive gaming has truly arrived as a mainstream pursuit. It still has a long way to go before it rivals the Super Bowl in the commercial stakes, but the potential of esports is vast. Its stars are already multimillionaires, big companies are piling in with sponsorship deals and traditional sports leagues should be very afraid.
There are now 380 million esports fans across the globe and the industry is already worth more than $1 billion per year. Coca-Cola, MasterCard and Intel are among the big companies sponsoring teams and tournaments, showing just how seriously the business community is treating this phenomenon. Audience figures only look set to rise due to improved technology and increasing connectivity in emerging regions. Right now esports is huge in South Korea, China, Europe and North America, but there is vast untapped potential in Africa, Latin America and vast swathes of Asia.
Esports officially began in 1972, but esports as we know it now only really got going since the dawn of broadband Internet. The scene only really began to break into the mainstream in 2011, with the launch of Twitch plus big titles like League of Legends, Dota 2 and StarCraft II. In a very short space of time, it has already left a number of traditional sports in its shade. Now it has its sights set on overhauling the real juggernauts – football, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, cricket, boxing and baseball – and it has every chance of doing just that.
Connectivity is constantly improving around the world and new games are always being released to win over new legions of fans. The biggest launch of 2018, Fortnite, picked up 200 million players and earned more than $3 billion in profits for developer Epic Games. Now that publisher is hell-bent on making Fortnite the biggest esport in the world and it is providing $100 million in prize pools this year to ensure it overtakes Dota 2 as the most lucrative competitive gaming scene. But new rivals are constantly emerging, giving esports a level of innovation and dynamism that traditional sports can never hope to rival.
Some people might be baffled to learn that thousands of people pack into stadiums to watch teenage millionaires play computer games against one another, while millions more stream tournaments on Twitch and YouTube. But the best multiplayer online battle arena games, such as Dota 2 and LoL, can be utterly gripping to watch once you get into them. The same is true of first person shooters such as CS:GO, as watching a player pull off an ace in a clutch moment of a big match is positively spine-tingling.
These players often do not look like your typical sports stars. Some are fat, some are pencil thin, many look nerdy. But that is an even greater part of esports’ appeal: it is accessible, and you do not need to be built like Adonis to thrive. The technical skill required is immense and dexterity is highly prised, and esports stars share many of the traits you see in leading traditional athletes, including composure, concentration, decision-making, teamwork, anticipation, bravery and endurance.
It will be a while before the players rival the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Matt Ryan in the salary stakes. The top earning esports star of all time, KuroKy, has made $4.1 million throughout his illustrious career, which is pretty impressive, but pales in comparison to the earnings of top football and basketball players. Yet the gap will narrow significantly in the next decade.
New generations are growing up in a digital world and many find they can relate more to pro gamers than they can to football players. It is therefore absolutely conceivable that a showpiece esports final could match the spectacle and sponsorship of the Super Bowl. Fans of games like CS:GO and LoL would argue that the spectacle is already greater, but there is less pomp and ceremony. However, Super Bowl viewing figures are tapering off, while esports’ numbers are rocketing, and brands like Coca-Cola and MasterCard will simply go where the viewers are.
You only have to look at the esports betting industry to know how close pro gaming is to overtaking the NFL in popularity. The world’s leading betting sites have made esports central to their offerings, and there are flourishing sites like https://unikrn.com/bet that are solely dedicated to esports wagering. This industry is now worth $6 billion, and it is projected to rise to $23.5 billion by 2020. More people bet on esports than on several traditional sports already, and it looks like only a matter of time before it overhauls even the Super Bowl.
The gambling industry is well ahead of the curve when it comes to jumping on emerging trends, but credit card companies, big food and drink suppliers, car manufacturers and technology firms are all getting involved now too, and they are bound to ramp up their investment going forwards. The entertainment industry is also very active in the burgeoning world of esports, as highlighted by Drake and Scooter Braun investing in 100Thieves last year. These guys know how to put on a show and it will not be long before they bring that expertise to big showpiece esports events.
Most traditional sports franchises have taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is one of the main investors in 100Thieves, while all the big NBA teams have LoL franchises too. Big soccer teams like Man City and PSG have esports equivalents, and more and more traditional sporting titans are getting involved. They have experience of huge events like the Super Bowl and the Champions League final, and they can bring that pizzazz to big esports finals.
Esports is the future and there is no stopping this juggernaut, so it seems like only a matter of time before big tournaments match the spectacle, glitz and glamor you see at the Super Bowl.